The Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad demolishing a faux church, erected for a movie shoot near a temple, signals that rightwing forces want to disrupt social harmony in Kerala
On May 25, a group of men destroyed a cinema set on an island on the Periyar River in Kerala’s Kalady, triggering a controversy. The set, a replica of an old Christian church, belonged to Weekend Blockbusters, a production house promoted by Sophia Paul, and was erected for the shooting of Minnal Murali, a Malayalam superhero film directed by Basil Joseph, starring Mollywood heartthrob Tovino Thomas. The film also stars comedians Aju Varghese and Harishree Ashokan. It is written by Justin Mathew and Arun Anirudhan.
Soon, the Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad (AHP), a rightwing group that owes allegiance to the BJP and the RSS, took responsibility for the act of vandalism. The AHP even shared photos of the attack on social media, mainly on Facebook. AHP leader Hari Palode wrote on Facebook after the act that the group had earlier resisted the construction of a “church” in front of the famous Shiva temple in Kalady. Palode congratulated Malayattoor Ratheesh, the Ernakulam district leader of the Bajrang Dal, for assisting them in the demolition.
The move has been swiftly condemned by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The Malayalam film industry came out in support of the makers and actors of Minnal Murali. The shooting of the film had to be postponed following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Kerala a few months ago and the production team was waiting for the lockdown to be lifted to resume the shoot, especially the climax of the film, which reportedly happens at the massive ‘church’. “It has caused us a lot of distress, and even more anxiety. We have decided to go ahead with the legal proceedings,” actor Tovino Thomas wrote on Facebook.
Karni Sena and its ilk
This is not the first time film shootings have been interrupted by rightwing groups in India. In 2017, Karni Sena, an outfit said to be representing the Rajput community, disrupted the shooting of Sanjay Leela Bansali’s Padmaavat in Jaipur. Karni Sena even assaulted Bansali, alleging that the director distorted facts about Rani Padmavati of Medapata Kingdom. The film, originally titled Padmavati, had to be renamed Padmavat and was released in 2018. A seemingly vindicated Karni Sena sprang up into action again in March this year and disrupted the shooting of Prithviraj, starring Akshay Kumar, an ardent fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prithviraj is based on the life of Chahamana King Prithviraj Chauhan. The protestors said they wanted to see and approve the script.
Similar incidents have happened in Tamil Nadu also. Shooting of Tamil comedy film Sulthan (yet to be released) was interrupted by the BJP and Hindu Munnani activists in Dindigul in September 2019, alleging that the film was a biopic of Tipu Sultan, the former ruler of Mysore who rightwing groups in India detest. In 2016, the Bajrang Dal vandalised the shooting location of the British movie Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Lee Hall, starring Bollywood star Ali Fazal. The rightwing activists protested the installation of a statue of Queen Victoria in Mehtab Bagh in Agra. The director had to recreate the north Indian city of Agra in the United Kingdom fearing protests.
Soon after the incident in Kalady, producer Sophia Paul told the media that she had consulted with Kerala Producers Association and they have decided to take the legal route for a fair play. She told news channels that they spent Rs 50 lakh to build the temporary structure in February. After photographs of the “church demolition” went viral on social media, members of various rightwing groups posted congratulatory messages on Facebook, lauding the AHP. The “pride of Hindus were retained”, wrote many. The Ernakulam Rural Police have so far arrested two people in connection with the case.
The virus of communalism
Reports have revealed that the film crew had taken permission from the authorities, including the local panchayat, police and the office bearers of the nearby Shiva temple for constructing the temporary structure. The producers and makers of Minnal Murali say the incident is a blot on the face of secular Kerala, which has one of the best literacy rates in the country and boasts of having a multicultural and plural society.
Such loud display of rightwing vandalism is rather new to Kerala, which, unlike North India, has not seen riots, mob lynchings or similar acts of violence in the name of religion and religious choices, especially in the recent past. Reacting to the AHP action, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Kerala was not a place for communal elements and strong action would be taken against the vandals. He also wondered “what religious sentiment was hurt by the erection of a set” on the banks of the river. In the 2020 edition of its annual report on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom alleged that in 2019, religious freedom conditions in India “experienced a drastic turn downward”, with religious minorities under increasing assault. The current attack of the AHP in Kerala has the potential to further malign India’s international image.
The attack becomes important given that the cinema industry in Kerala and beyond is reeling under huge losses as shootings were cancelled following the Covid-19 lockdown. Producers and actors say if the industry will have to face a virus that is more dangerous than the novel coronavirus — referring to the Hindutva groups — it is not going to augur well for the future of freedom of speech and art in the country.